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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Look, Don't Touch!

One of the great pleasures of visiting some destinations is the ability to, in a way, touch history. Whether that touch is physical, metaphorical or imaginary us really an effect of the destination.

For example, it's possible to touch history, stylized and reasonably rose-colored, at places such as Disneyland. Step into the park and be immediately immersed in late nineteenth and early twentieth century imagination. It's a game of let's pretend, but a good one and fun to do. Inauthentic, perhaps, but did the country ever really exist in that spirited Eden from movies like THE MUSIC MAN? Was Paris truly like VICTOR/VICTORIA? No, but that doesn't mean we cant indulge in a bit of nostalgic legerdemain to make world just a bit more fun.

The D'Orsay

For the physical touch, there are such attractions as Williamsburg in Virginia, the California Missions along the West Coast, or a walk through the Vieux Carre in New Orleans. The buildings are genuine, and the historic atmosphere palpable. In Europe the opportunities are even more profound with such places as Notre Dame in Paris or, ancient of ancients, the Colosseum and Forum in Rome. Standing in what was once the audience's viewing stands, your hands resting upon a section of rock which may have once echoed the cheers of some long-forgotten battle is an astounding experience if you take the moment and pause to listen.

But it is the  metaphorical touch that is, at times, the most impactful to an open mind.

Look, don't touch
What do I mean by the phrase "metaphorical touch"? I mean that feeling you get while gazing at an item of antiquity. The Declaration of Independence, visible only through a climate controlled window, for one example. A Faberge Egg in a glass display case for another. Chances are you're not going to be able to rest your mitts directly on either one of those two priceless items, but in your mind you have a specific representation of them both. You know what they represent, and therefore the tactile element isn't necessary to your appreciation of them.
A sight to behold

Many museums, for good reason, maintain policies regarding our interaction with the more fragile items from our collective past. It was our good fortune, recently, to visit two of the best collections of Impressionist art anywhere in the world: The Musees d'Orsay and l'Orangerie in Paris.

Despite the tight relationship between the two venues, I was struck, and a little disappointed, by the policy differences between the two when it came to photographing the exhibition -- or even the museum itself when it came to the d'Orsay.

Certainly the protection of the works must take priority. At no point would it be acceptable -- particularly in this technological world of ours, in which we know precisely what destroys pigment or the physical groundings of a piece -- to allow a practice which is known to damage the art. The majority of museums in the world understand the desire for the viewer to take home a bit of the experience of seeing such great works. In most cases, this means a photograph of the work, taken by cellphone or camera, which can go into a family scrapbook or be shown to friends who would, themselves, salivate at the chance to stand before a van Gogh, or Renoir, or Degas.

Communing with Architecture
Living History (The Vatican)
Unfortunately, as is often the case, the actions of the few dullards among us causes the need for stricter regulations. In this case,the complete prohibition against photography in the d'Orsay. The actions of a handful of patrons -- those who, at some point of their viewing of these great works, decided that the regulation against flash photography did not apply personally but only to others -- have now ruined it for the rest of us. As a photographer...and perhaps even moreso as a fan of great art...I find myself deeply angry with this. My memory of the visit is all I have (unless, of course, I purchase the forty dollar keepsake volume in the museum's store), and those pictures are essentially lost to me for lack of a visual representation.

(I do not, in any way, begrudge the D'Orsay -- or any other museum -- their dime for the book. Art books are excellent investments.)

(As a reasonably honorable photographer, I know I can be relied upon to photograph the works in a non-damaging way. Sadly, based upon experience, I'm in complete agreement that we cannot be trusted as a crowd.)

Art Appreciation Day
But it's our unique ability as a species to want to see these things, to experience them and, yes, to bring a bit of them home with us. To our knowledge, no other animal keeps mementos to help them rediscover, recall something they've experienced. To see a picture, to touch an object, to recall a scent. Things that mean something and somehow comfort us  by reminding us where we've been and where we might want to go next.

This will lead us full circle, the appreciation of history and historic events can be a lot of fun, and it's a way to reconnect with ourselves or our roots or even just our interests. It's that time taken to stop and appreciate that which has gone by that gives us an important perspective. That's the sort of thing that can tell us where we've been...

…and maybe an indication if just how much further we can go.

An actor goes about her character's chores in Colonial Williamsburg

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